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No Success Like Failure

Selected Essays of R.P. Blackmur

edited and with an introduction by Denis Donoghue
Ecco Press, 372 pp., $17.50

Wayward Skeptic: The Theories of R.P. Blackmur

by James T. Jones
University of Illinois Press, 216 pp., $24.95

R.P. Blackmur was much possessed by failure, by what René Wellek calls an insight into human insufficiency. Perhaps the most brilliant member of a brilliant generation of critics—he was born in 1904, died in 1965—Blackmur worried more than any of them over what can’t be said, can’t be faced, over the places in history and personal life where hope winds down and possibilities seem to die. “We burn the last dry lifewood of the mind,” he wrote in a poem in 1945; but he was always doing that, and then finding life after all in the ashes. His criticism was, as Denis Donoghue has said, a way of postponing failure, but it was also a way of probing and celebrating it, of turning it into a distinctive glory. Blackmur wished he could show, “clearly, self-evidently, and irrefutably,” how criticism resembles art.

But only revelation can do all that. I think it has something to do with radical imperfection. I risk it that in literary criticism you get the radical imperfection of the intellect striking on the radical imperfection of the imagination.

Radical imperfection looks like a desperate cousin of original sin, and yet could be a mercy after all, since it may save us from delusions of sufficiency and from all the quicker, soothing forms of failure. “Most failures come too easily,” Blackmur sternly wrote. “A genuine failure comes hard and slow, and, as in a tragedy, is only fully realized at the end.” And again: “Pascal is not a great man manqué; he is a great man, and also manqué.” No success like failure, as Bob Dylan used to drone.

Blackmur was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and spent most of his early life in Cambridge. He left school at fourteen and received no further formal education. He learned much of what he knew (which was a lot) in the bookstores where he worked for several of his young years. Honors descended on him later in life—he was a full professor at Princeton, adviser to the Rockefeller Foundation, lecturer to the Library of Congress, member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—but he retained, as Russell Fraser suggests in his intelligent, slightly cryptic biography,* the mild pedantry of the self-taught, the habit of reaching for the dictionary and the arcane word. He was a mandarin, but an upstart mandarin. His major critical work was done early, in the 1930s, when he was widely taken (by Eliot, Winters, Tate, and others) to be the best reader modern poetry had found. He had, Fraser says, what Blackmur himself called a prehensile imagination, able to wrap itself around its object, “like the monkey’s tail on the branch, or the fingers on the ladder rung when the foot slips.” Blackmur was an editor of the magazine Hound and Horn for part of its brief life (1927–1934: it started at Harvard, then moved to New York). He eked out a precarious free-lance existence through the Thirties, sustained by his wife’s teaching and painting jobs; then held a series of short-term appointments at Princeton (in creative arts, at the Institute for Advanced Study) before reaching the haven of the English department there in 1948 and tenure in 1951. Fraser has stern words for Blackmur’s later writing:

A lot of late Blackmur is high-toned journalism, and you feel as you read it how a great critic is losing his way.

Leslie Fiedler told Fraser that he thought Blackmur had invented his late style so that he himself wouldn’t know when he was making sense and when he was making nonsense. There is something in this. The late prose acquires all sorts of fuss and manner. Blackmur writes that “when we come to Lorca something has happened to the Western mind,” and the pompousness of the phrase makes Eliot’s efforts in the same vein seem models of modesty. But there was fuss in Blackmur’s early work too (“a susurrus of irony,” the word ail used as a noun, as in “Adams was in the worse ail”), and even in the very latest work a fine agility persists, a gift for so holding a thought to the light that it shows angles you had not dreamed of and can scarcely count. He understood what he himself called “the seriousness of frivolity,” and in his teaching, Frazer says, was “unwilling to condescend—unable by temperament.” In his classes at Princeton, his students “didn’t always know what he was talking about, but even the least of them knew himself in the presence of a mind turning over.”

Blackmur published three volumes of verse (collected as Poems of R.P. Blackmur, Princeton, 1977), and five volumes of criticism: The Double Agent (1935); The Expense of Greatness (1940); Language as Gesture (1952); The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955); Eleven Essays in the European Novel (1964). Since his death more essays have been assembled in A Primer of Ignorance (1967), and his work on Henry Adams and Henry James has been gathered into two separate books, published in 1980 and 1983 respectively. Blackmur spent a good portion of his life, from about 1936, not completing his book on Adams—some seven hundred pages of manuscript exist, of which the 1980 book offers, in Donoghue’s words, “the most finished parts.”

Blackmur’s preface to Eleven Essays, apologizing for that work as “fragments of an unfinished ruin,” hints, perhaps unintentionally, at the great attraction of the perfectly unrealizable project, the right sort of failure. His original scheme, he says, “a volume each on Dostoyevsky, Joyce and James, two volumes on the European novel, one on the English and one on the American novel,” no longer seems to him “feasible or perhaps desirable to complete.” Feasibility can’t really have loomed very large in his thoughts, and a few more fragments, in any case, won’t do any harm. He will, he writes, put together

something on Gide, Kafka, Broch, Proust, Balzac and Stendhal; something more on Tolstoy and Joyce; something on Smollett, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Conrad; and of course a small set of studies on James.

And then—Blackmur has the bit between his teeth now—“something on Don Quixote and something on that most lyric and exotic of all novels, The Tale of Genji.” All those somethings. What is charming about the list is Blackmur’s evident affection for all its contents, the pleasure he promises himself. The marvel is that with this dream of infinite reading in his head he should have written anything at all.

Blackmur’s poems were derivative at first, full of echoes of Pound and Yeats and Eliot, but became elegant and individual, if a little cramped; witty as Blackmur’s prose is through a mixture of snappy and abstract language. Often the poems recount private choices, errors of attempted wisdom in love, economies of emotion. The heart exaggerates, we learn, tenderness is better than fury and foam, we can know one another without injury and bewilderment, “Or so we plead—we who have married reason / on desperate cause, when the heart’s cause was lost.” From such marriages, in the end, both reason and the heart defect. But the poems also contemplate politics and history, a world trying to rise again from the ruins of war, and they recommend a casualness which seems all the more desirable because the poet has to study it so hard. “The Dead Ride Fast,” for example, is a fine poem about “the inviolable standstill / everything comes to,” and the writer’s decision to be “deliberately unprepared” until the last day, when he will be just as prepared as we all have to be at that time:

Perhaps you don’t catch what I mean. Look here.
There have been bats in this house, variously
crawling and flitting, not easy to get out,
but always bats whether you knew them or not;
there have been seabirds beat against the window,
bill on, some die, but mostly only stun;
ducks in the marsh, with their known unknowable voices;
also telegrams delivered at night;
all these are wholesome until you stiffen to meet them.
You understand: I will not make of politics
a superstition, of religion a distrust,
of thought a mania. I will not look under beds
with stiffened eyes, knowing what I shall see.

Denis Donoghue’s generous selection of essays includes chapters from Eleven Essays on Crime and Punishment and Mann’s Doctor Faustus, as well as the promised “something” on Stendhal, a rather willful and crotchety piece on The Charterhouse of Parma. But the selection mainly concentrates, I’m sure rightly, on Blackmur’s work on modern poetry and on Henry Adams and Henry James. It is a pity not to have “Anni Mirabiles,” the four lectures on modernism Blackmur gave at the Library of Congress in 1956, which I know Donoghue admires as much as I do. But they are dense and difficult and patchy, and perhaps not the best place to start with this critic.

Blackmur on poetry was strict and haughty, but not self-righteous. The Selected Essays opens with a well-known essay defining criticism as “the formal discourse of an amateur…it names and arranges what it knows and loves.” It also, with occasional waspish wit, says what it can’t love: Cummings’s vagueness, for example, his “confused” relation to language; the “despotically construed emotions” besetting Hart Crane and a whole age in love with raw experience. Emily Dickinson wrote a “kind of vers de société of the soul.” She and Whitman were geniuses, no doubt, but they didn’t find a satisfactory form for their sense of the world, and didn’t even—here is the mischievous twist—seem to miss it. “The great bulk of the verse of each appears to have been written on the sustaining pretense that everything was always possible.”

The heresy of success could hardly be taken further. Literature for Blackmur was getting things into vivid language, or into shape, an attempt to “realize in word and images obdurate things,” as a poem puts it. The task requires not a mastery of language but a trust in it: “The only mastery possible to the poet consists in that entire submission to his words which is perfect knowledge.” Wallace Stevens makes us “aware of how much is already condensed in any word,” and

An author should remember, with the Indians, that the reality of a word is anterior to, and greater than, his use of it can ever be; that there is a perfection to the feelings in words to which his mind cannot hope to attain.

Poetry, Blackmur insisted, “is life at the remove of form and meaning; not life lived but life framed and identified.” And for poets it is “the only means of putting a tolerable order upon the emotions.”

And yet Blackmur argues that order itself, the dream of form, is a burden, an oppressive fiction. Pascal suggests to him “a sense of the intolerableness of even the most necessary order,” and “the only sound orders,” in Blackmur’s view, “are those which invite as well as withstand disorder.” Form for him was not a prescription or a fixed final shape but something like a spiritual exercise, a demand to be made of life and of ourselves. He writes most persuasively not about achievements of form of failures of form but about battles for form: Yeats making magic do the work of faith; James creating in his stories a company he could not find among his contemporaries; Eliot discovering hints of order in the randomly shuffled world. Magic, Blackmur says, is really nearer to us than psychology will ever be. “We are all, without conscience, magicians in the dark.” James and his father were fastidious, idealistic Americans, “dissenters to all except the society that was not yet.” And a “drift of stars” in Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” provokes this extraordinary commentary:

  1. *

    Russell Fraser, A Mingled Yarn: The Life of R.P. Blackmur (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981).

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